Lessons Learned with Saasha Celestial-One, Co-Founder & COO at OLIO
Lessons Learned, hosted by Wes Rashid, is where entrepreneurs from a wide range of industries share their personal stories and hardships.
In this episode, we speak to Saasha Celestial-One Co-Founder & COO at OLIO - a marketplace app for food sharing and reducing waste.
Having grown up in Iowa with hardcore hippies as parents, Saasha shares:
How her early years instilled her aversion to waste
Where the idea for OLIO came from
How the BBC fuelled their growth
Their approach to hiring a C-Suite
Their advice and motto for fundraising
How her early years instilled an aversion to waste
Let's start with your background in Iowa, because your journey is really interesting.
Sure, Iowa is a relatively rural part of America. I was in the crazy family of town, hardcore hippies who challenged convention in every aspect of my childhood. They were entrepreneurs as well, but it wasn;t until I was a teenager that the company they founded became successful. So as a kid, I identified as being quite poor and not having enough money. My mum had to be really resourceful about making ends meet.
She would take me along, as the oldest of six kids, to help her and that meant scavenging for things that other people had thrown away, so that we could use them, eat them or sell them. You know, just to make ends meet. As a kid, I knew this wasn’t normal and I said that when I’m older, I’m not going to live this way, but it really did instil in me a deep aversion to waste. So it doesn’t take a genius to see how I’ve come full circle with a waste busting app and OLIO.
I feel like that shaped your early career path, even before OLIO started, it was almost like a pivot in life.
Definitely, my form of rebellion was to seek a professionally secure and financially stable career path. So I was studying economics and spent 13 years in banking and consulting and other sort of very risk averse corporate roles. I met my OLIO co-founder Tessa at business school and generally speaking I was looking to carve out a much more secure and risk averse profession for myself.
Where the idea for OLIO came from
I went to business school hoping to find out what I wanted to do with my life and I really came up empty handed. Working for Makenzie was a safe plan, and it brought me to London in 2005 but after a while I wanted a better work-life balance so I moved over to American Express, which had a better culture and gave me the opportunity to travel.
I enjoyed that role but selling credit cards whether it was individuals or to bank partners was just something I could never really get excited about.
When I was on maternity leave, I did have time for reflection and came up with an idea for a small business. My Creche, which was London’s first pay as you go flexible childcare provider that really helped me to address a pain point that was getting access to flexible, high quality childcare. It was profitable and full, but I realised I wanted to do something on a much bigger scale.
I started to graduate out of the world of children and parents and around that time Tessa was at a similar crossroads in her life and we put our heads together and started looking for a problem to solve.
Back then you were new to entrepreneurship, what lessons did you learn in that first business that you took into your new business OLIO?
First I learned that I definitely wanted to be an entrepreneur. Within minutes of quitting my corporate job and starting to become an entrepreneur, with no salary in the beginning I had to drastically reduce my expenses and I was using my redundancy package from American Express to live on. But I was coming home and the thrill of working on something that was my own problem got me out of bed every morning at 4 or 5am. That energy I hadn’t had in a long time and it was intoxicating and I really enjoyed it.
Even though it was my first entrepreneurial venture I probably had a dozen micro ventures from my childhood and teenage years, so that kind of hustle was role modelled to me by my parents.
I always knew that doing something, anything, was better than being sat around doing nothing.
How the BBC helped
I can’t believe that people had the foresight that you had as founders, with the conviction to carry on going and you went on to raise a seed round, at that point did you have a product?
We launched in July 2015, and we registered people by standing on the street corner and asking them to be volunteers. So when we launched we asked these volunteers to stand on the street corners and sign up more people and hand out more flyers and posters. One of those posters that was put up (illegally) was spotted by a BBC journalist in August, who did a piece on us for the evening news and the rest is history.
If I’m honest, it meant that we got thousands of people signed up overnight and people started giving food away. We spent absolutely nothing on marketing except printing some flyers and we saw this massive engagement which peaked the interest of Excel in food waste which is worth over $1T a year, so it’s a massive market in efficiency, which means there’s value and profit to be made in capturing that inefficiency.
Her approach to hiring a C-Suite
Following the Series B round, usually with the entrepreneurs we work with a new management team come in, or new management hires should I say, so has your role changed now in terms of scope?
Until about 9 months ago we had no finance, legal, HR people. But finally we realised we needed a step-change in terms of talent to take us to the next level. I’m really pleased with how we did that and we hired an entire C-Suite. We went out to market so when the individuals, the C-Suite joined, it was exactly six months and they joined at the exact same time.
That meant that we had a cohort of senior leaders that went through the induction and onboarding process at the same time. Asking all the same questions of each other and of us, and it was just really, well it really meant that they were a part of all the strategy meetings that we did then. It’s been six months since they’ve been embedded in the organisation and I think over that time my role has changed.
It has become clear that I have a lot to do just in connecting the dots for people. Being that person overseeing the organisation and identifying where communication blockages are happening. This happens all the time, where people don't have that background of the organisation and if things have happened before or been tried before. This frees people up to work to their full potential. It’s a full-time job.
Her advice and motto for fundraising
When it comes to your fundraising, how have you managed to get it over the line?
A lot of credit here goes to Tessa, she has this motto, ABF, Always be fundraising. The reason I share that is because she probably spends 50% minimum of her time on this.
So it has been a lot of work for us, if you think 7 years, 5 fundraising rounds, 50% at least of one person’s time all year long. That’s a lot of time that’s gone into ensuring that we have the right relationships, we’ve told the right story, taken investors on our journey, earned their trust…blah blah blah…all that stuff that you need to do so that when you are ready to raise, you’re not starting from scratch.
So I guess my only advice to under-represented founders is to recognise that if you persist, there is money available and there are people that want to support women led businesses, mission driven businesses and all different types of businesses. You might just have to, to be honest, just work a bit harder to find that match.